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Justice for Iraq and José
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 22 - 05 - 2008

Serene Assir reports on the struggle for justice of the family of Spanish journalist José Couso, killed in a US attack on Baghdad's Palestine Hotel in 2003
The Couso family were watching a television news bulletin when they first became aware of the missile attack on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad by invading US forces the fatal injuries sustained by Jose Couso, cameraman for Spanish TV station Telecinco. They watched the screen in horror as they saw Couso, bleeding, being taken out of the hotel. He was taken to hospital where doctors tried to save his life by amputating his leg. The attempt failed. Aged 37, Couso died the same day.
The attack on the Palestine Hotel also killed Ukrainian Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk. Earlier that morning, the US had bombed Al-Jazeera's Baghdad headquarters, ending the life of Palestinian-Jordanian correspondent Tareq Ayoub.
Both Protsyuk and Couso were un-embedded journalists.
Since the US-led invasion of Iraq was launched in March 2003, at least 316 journalists and media workers have been killed in Iraq, according to the Brussells Tribunal (www.brusselstribunal.org). This leaves the US's illegal war of aggression on Iraq as the deadliest in history for journalists. Of the total number recorded, 286 killed have been Iraqi and 30 non-Iraqi.
Since 8 April 2003, the Couso family has not rested, continuing still their struggle for justice for Jose. Since 2003, they have organised protests every year at the gates of the US embassy in Madrid. On 8 October 2008, they will be rallying again.
Meanwhile, they continue to pursue a tough -- and as yet inconclusive -- judicial process with the final goal of securing the extradition and trial for war crimes in a Spanish court of the US 3rd Infantry Division's Sgt Thomas Gibson, Capt Philip Wolford and Lt-Col Philip de Camp. Investigations have revealed the three responsible for firing on the Palestine Hotel from their tank. According to Swiss-based law association TRIAL, Spain issued an international search and arrest warrant against them in October 2005. They were also successfully indicted for the commission of war crimes.
On 16 May 2008, however, in a decision of the Spanish Audiencia Nacional (National Court), orders to arrest and imprison the three US Army personnel were revoked. The decision's reasoning, which a separate opinion by magistrate Jose Ricardo de Prada Solaesa described as "highly unusual", declared there was insufficient evidence to charge the three personnel. In addition, it made a distinction between action in wartime and outside of war. This is a distinction that international legal decisions -- such as the International Court of Justice's ruling on the Apartheid Wall in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- have ruled as inadmissible given that it suggests that mechanisms of human rights protection ought to shrink rather than grow in wartime.
According to Jose Couso's brother Javier, who is a prominent voice not only in the representation of his family's efforts for Jose but also in the anti-war movement in Spain, new evidence will be presented to the court in the near future to try and secure a new indictment. Among the new evidence will be fresh witness testimony.
Hearing the news of the revocation of the arrest warrant was "bittersweet", Javier Couso told Al-Ahram Weekly. The family was "angered because of the attitude of some judges who continue to be determined to pardon the impunity of US military personnel," and instead of "protecting a Spanish citizen prefer to spring to the defence of foreign military personnel." A press release issued by the family went further, indicating it was their belief that the National Court's "Second Penal Section, which supported the Spanish Attorney General office's petition to revoke the prosecution order against the US military personnel � is following US military dictates that seek to put a stop to the investigation of a war crime committed against Jose Couso."
The family's lawyer, Enrique Santiago, points out that although the international warrant against the three officers has been revoked, the case remains open and the judicial investigation will continue. The appeal, slated for submission before the Tribunal Supremo (Supreme Court), will not concern the jurisdictional basis for the case to be investigated in Spain, which stands confirmed, Santiago told the Weekly, as of December 2006. "Rather, the only questions that will be raised before the Supreme Court will relate to whether it is the right time to prosecute the presumed criminals," Santiago said, "and whether or not it is adequate to issue international search, arrest and imprisonment warrants against the three accused."
As such, though the arrest revocation is a setback, it is by no means a defeat. The family has not lost hope. "We remain hopeful and strong in our resolve to fight the legal battle till the end, in either or both Spanish and international courts," said Javier Couso.
More broadly, members of the Couso family have been relentless in their public opposition to the ongoing occupation of Iraq. "Our struggle is intimately linked to the struggle of the people of Iraq," Javier Couso told the Weekly. "My brother is one more victim among the more than one million people killed in this illegal invasion and occupation. For us this case is more painful, but we do not consider that it has any more importance than that of any of the civilians who have died in this tremendous aggression."
Javier underlines the importance of contextualising and understanding the killing of Jose as part of a campaign of assassinating independent journalists in Iraq, preventing media freedom in Iraq. "We are faced with a criminal campaign to prevent the exercise of independent journalism, of which US military personnel form an important part -- an effort to block the media from reporting what is happening in Iraq," Couso said.
Starting with the launch of the illegal invasion of Iraq, the US military sought to "embed" journalists, blacklisting those who reported unfavourably on its operations. Meanwhile, neither embedded nor un-embedded journalists had -- or have -- their safety guaranteed. Embedded journalists are subject to de facto censorship; while, statistically, un-embedded journalists, by remaining independent, have their lives exposed to greater risk. No Iraqi reporters are embedded. It is they who have by far incurred the highest casualties.
Aside from the occupation and war on Iraq being the conflict that has led to the highest number of deaths among reporters in history, Iraq tops the Committee to Protect Journalists' (CPJ) Impunity Index -- a list of countries where governments have consistently failed to investigate the murder of journalists. According to CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon, the governments on the list, released in April ahead of World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2008, "simply must do more to demonstrate a real commitment to a free press. Lip service won't help save journalists' lives. We are calling for action: thorough investigations and vigorous prosecutions in all journalist homicides."
Because of the very nature of free reporting there is also a strong correlation between the impunity with which the US, its allies in occupation and the current US-installed Iraqi regime are operating and the death of reporters seeking to tell the truth about their methods. Opposition to the war worldwide has persistently called for ending media censorship, advocating press freedoms and justice for killed journalists, alongside the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the US occupation from Iraq.
"We firmly condemn this illegal occupation and advocate, alongside the people of Iraq, for the recovery of Iraqi sovereignty, which will without doubt notably advance our own quest for justice," said Javier Couso.


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